Pomander thumbnail 1
Pomander thumbnail 2
Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
Medieval & Renaissance, Room 62, The Foyle Foundation Gallery


ca.1500 (made)
Place of origin

This small globe, hollow and pierced with late gothic tracery, is a combined rosary bead and pomander. Rosary beads could be made of wood, ivory, bone or metalwork and were strung together to be handled while prayers were said. It was not unusual for one bead to hold a mixture of aromatic substances to perfume the air and act as a pomander. This bead is divided into two halves which unscrew, allowing access to the interior.

Object details

Object type
This object consists of 2 parts.

  • Rosary Bead
  • Rosary Bead
Materials and techniques
Silver-gilt, pierced
Brief description
Silver-gilt ball for musk; with pierced Gothic tracery, German, late 15th-early 16th century
Physical description
Combined rosary bead and pomander, silver gilt, shaped as a hollow, slightly pointed ball, divided into two halves and attached to each other by a centrally placed screw. Each half is pierced by Late Gothic tracery. A hoop at each end: to one is attached a corded ring.
  • Height: 3.7cm
  • Width: 2.5cm
Measured for the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries
Object history
The Museum purchased the object in 1853. The vendor was not recorded. It was acquired as a pomander or scent case, German, fifteenth century. In 1975 Michael Snodin (MS note in Departmental Register) suggested it was probably a scented rosary bead and compared it with the beads of the rosary in Joost van Cleeve's Virgin and Child with St Bernard (Louvre), repr. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, IX, pt.1, 1972, pl.62 (a work of c. 1508). Ronald W. Lightbown (Medieval European Jewellery: with a catalogue of the collection in the Victoria & Albert Museum, 1992) agrees that 'the bead in the picture closely resembles the present ball, and the hypothesis has much to recommend it.' There is another, perhaps more comparable, rosary bead-cum-musk-ball in the portrait, by Barthel Bruyn the Elder, of Kunegundis von Heimbach. The entry for this object in the exhibition catalogue for '500 Jahre Rosenkranz: 1475 Köln 1975' (Cologne, 1976) reads:

'The wife of the mayor of Cologne, Peter von Heimbach, is in prayer, holding an expensive rosary with pomander (musk ball). As in other portraits by this artist, the form and function of the prayer beads (Gebetsschuere) typical in the Lower Rhein region are apparent, which are known almost exclusively through pictorial tradition.'

However, Lightbown points out that there is a 'South German muskapfel of c.1500', comparable to the object under discussion 'with a small chain attached to a large ring, in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich. See Steingräber (1957,p.81).' Steingräber notes that such scent balls were generally 'in the shape of small, round ampullae and were worn as pendants on the belt or around the neck.' Lightbown notes that 'If a muskapfel, then a bead or ornament of some kind probably hung from the lower hoop.' As 'small musk-balls in open-work cases seem often to have been worn as paternosters, and paternoster beads appear to have had the same design' there is occasionally, as in the case of Museum No. 918-1853, a question whether what we have is in fact a musk-ball or a paternoster bead, or both.

Historical significance: The piece demonstrates the importance of the role of scent in jewellery and devotional objects. There is a similar bead in the Pforzheim Jewellery Museum (South West Germany). This is described as a 'Bisamapfel', or 'musk apple', worn dangling from a girdle or attached to a chain and worn around the neck. See Schmuckmuseum Pforzheim, cat. no. 119 and colour image.
Historical context

A pomander, (the name is derived from the French pomme d'ambre or apple of amber), is a mixture of aromatic substances carried in a small vessel, in the hand or pocket, or attached to a chain and hung from the neck or waist, especially as a preservative against infection. In the Middle Ages it was universally believed that strong-scented substances had the power to disinfect the air and to ward off plague and other diseases. Lightbown notes that:

'The earliest recorded European pomander, or rather pomum de ambra (apple of amber) appears in 1287, in the inventory of Cardinal Goffredo d'Alatri. Clearly they were already a well-established adjunct of costume for five are also mentioned in the inventory of Boniface VIII in 1295, and their use probably goes back to the late twelfth century. They may have owed their introduction into European society to oriental example - Byzantine or more probably Islamic - for among the gifts King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem sent in 1174 to the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa were 'golden apples filled with musk'.

Originally the term 'pomander' (of which there are several variants), or, alternatively, the German 'Bisamapfel' or 'Muskapfel', referred primarily to the perfumed substance and not the vessel which contained it, but over time the meaning seems to have shifted, and the vessels were also termed 'pomanders'. A recipe for pomander paste of the same period as this object can be found in a verse of 1482 by the German Meistersinger Hanz Folz (c.1450-1515):

'Therefore we need to know now
What withstands these poisons.
That is: to temper the air, strengthen the stomach, heart and brain,
Taste and savour aromatic things,
(To chase away these Forces)
One could wear a pomander
Prepared as the recipes say:
With frankincense, aloes, amber,
Camphor, cloves, oil-of-Ben, dried ginger-root,
Mace, lemon zest,
Ground mint, nutmeg,
Aromatic reeds,
Stem of Valerian,
Roses, gum, sandalwood,
Java pepper, cinnamon,
White turmeric, bugloss, laudanum,
Marjoram and bone charcoal.
Two types of apple are made of this
For Summer and for Winter time.
But whoever has the illness now
Taste it quickly, is my advice.'

(Hans Folz, Die Reimpaarsprüche Pestregimen in Versen (1482), lines 149-170.)

George Cavendish's Life of Wolsey (1557) describes a pomander in use when it states that the Cardinal "held in his hand a very fayre orrynge, whereof the mete, or substance within was taken out and fylled uppe agayn with the part of a sponge wherein was vynegar and other confecsions agaynst the pestylente ayers: to the which he most commonly smelt unto, passing among the prease or ells whan he was pestered with many sewters."

Rosary Beads:

The following is drawn largely from Stories of the Rose: The Making of the Rosary in the Middle Ages, by Anne Winston-Allen (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).

The rosary is a series of prayers and meditations designed to bring the worshipper closer to God through the Virgin Mary. Different versions, some in German and some in Latin, evolved over the course of the Late Middle Ages as communities of believers experimented with their own forms. As a religious practice it influenced as well as responded to the demands of the laity for new, more individual and private forms of prayer. It answered both the need for a meditative exercise to supplement the Mass that could be practiced in private and also for a prayer to be said during the Mass by those who were not able to follow the Latin text of the celebrations. The religious confraternity that was spawned by the devotion also participated in the shaping of the practice. Officially established in Cologne in 1475, it enrolled 100,000 members within the first seven years. From there it grew exponentially to become within a short time the largest such organization. Unlike most confraternities, the rosary brotherhood cost nothing to join, had no required meetings, and accepted everyone. Even deceased persons could be enrolled and prayers said on their behalf. Just as compelling as the opportunity to give aid to friends languishing in purgatory was the assurance that through this kind of self-help alliance members could guarantee prayers to be said for their own souls after death.

More than anything else, the reason so many people wanted to join the brotherhood was the acute need to provide greater security for their souls in the face of the threat of purgatory. Ironically, however, it was because of the granting of ever-greater special indulgences that the devotion fell victim to its own success. Spurious claims of indulgences for saying the prayer ballooned to outrageous proportions of up to 120,000 years. Increasingly, the exercise came to be exploited as a way to stockpile insurance against prolonged suffering in purgatory. The devotional narrative meditations that had earlier been the focus of the prayer became submerged in a host of other sets of complicated, numerical, and non-narrative meditations. Increasingly, the practice became the vehicle for a kind of legalistic 'arithmetical' piety. This mechanical and quantitative aspect of the exercise left it open to attacks by Protestant reformers who vigorously rejected the entire practice as fraudulent along with the indulgences and the doctrine of purgatory itself.

From its inception onward, the rosary devotion was intimately tied to the string of beads that came to represent it. The many uses and attractiveness of rosary beads were conducive to the prayer's success. Indeed, they lent the devotion an added aesthetic dimension and a certain concreteness, even as simple as the tactile comfort of something to grasp onto in times of trouble and especially in the final hours. While the founding of the confraternity may have served to heighten demand for rosary beads, it in turn benefited from their attractiveness as a symbol of the devotion and as a way of promoting the practice.Probably most members used some kind of device for keeping track of their prayers, but even if only a portion of them used beads for counting, the result was an increase in demand for what was, already, before the founding of the confraternity, an item of medieval 'mass merchandise' and a flourishing business. As early as 1277-78 makers of bead-chains called 'paternosters' are recorded in London. These beads were so named because of their use in saying repetitions of Our Fathers - the uneducated person's version of the 150 Psalms. Thomas Esser cites the names of London streets, Paternoster Row and Ave Maria Lane, as evidence for the early existence of the craft. At about the same time in Paris, Etienne Boileau's Livre des métiers (Book of trades, 1268) lists 'paternoster' makers by groups, according to the materials they specialized in: bone and horn, coral and mussel shell, or amber and polished brown coal (gagat). In the fifteenth century, beads make up a significant portion of the items recorded, for example, in the account books of Ulm merchant Ott Ruland, for the years 1446 to 1462, who, besides wooden 'Paternosters', dealt in helmets, daggers, pigs, horses, wines and oats. As a cottage industry, the manufacture of beads offered the possibility of a viable trade for women. Gerlind Ritz cites the example of a widow in Nuremberg who in 1606 made and sold 10,000 glass beads in the form of blackberries.

Chains of varying lengths and types - longer for women, shorter for men - were in use. It was certainly not detrimental to their popularity that prayer beads consituted religious jewellery that even the most pious could wear. Pomanders were widely used as pendants on sets of rosary beads, or occasionally as paternoster beads themselves.

Besides devotional and decorative uses, rosary beads were carried because they were thought to have the power of an amulet to ward off evil. In 1496, Michael Nielsen, author of the Danish rosary text,Om Jomfru Marie Rosenkrands (About the Virgin Mary's Rosary), advised:

If you will keep the devil's wiles at bay
Then you should have this chain and wear it.
If you would not fall prey to the devil's tricks,
Never let it leave your side.
For if you wear it on your arm,
It will protect you from sin and harm.

By being kept for a time near a picture of the Virgin or being consecrated in a church, the beads gained greater strength to fend off evil powers of to help the wearer to achieve a particular aim. Rosary manuals report cures of illness and insanity accomplished by placing rosary beads around the necks of affected sufferers. It was not uncommon for people to sleep with a rosary around the neck so as not to be overtaken by death in the night without this vital link to the Virgin. Most of all, when the hour of death came, people held the beads in their hands as they died.'
Subjects depicted
This small globe, hollow and pierced with late gothic tracery, is a combined rosary bead and pomander. Rosary beads could be made of wood, ivory, bone or metalwork and were strung together to be handled while prayers were said. It was not unusual for one bead to hold a mixture of aromatic substances to perfume the air and act as a pomander. This bead is divided into two halves which unscrew, allowing access to the interior.
Bibliographic references
  • Lightbown, Ronald W., Mediaeval European Jewellery: with a catalogue of the collection in the Victoria & Albert Museum, (London, V&A Publications, 1992), PP. 530-531.
  • Falk, Fritz. Schmuckmuseum Pforzheim: Von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. Pforzheim: Schmuckmuseum, 1980 (4th repr 1987).
  • Schiedlausky, G.. Vom Bisamapfel zur Vinaigrette: Zur Geschichte der Duftgefässe. Kunst und Antiquitäten, 4, 1985, pp. 28-38.
  • Smollich, R. Der Bisamapfel in Kunst und Wissenschaft. Stuttgart, 1983.
Accession number
918:1, 2-1853

About this object record

Explore the Collections contains over a million catalogue records, and over half a million images. It is a working database that includes information compiled over the life of the museum. Some of our records may contain offensive and discriminatory language, or reflect outdated ideas, practice and analysis. We are committed to addressing these issues, and to review and update our records accordingly.

You can write to us to suggest improvements to the record.

Suggest feedback

Record createdSeptember 29, 2004
Record URL
Download as: JSONIIIF Manifest